Anniversary of Murder

On a cold day in early April 1830, an elderly man was murdered as he slept in his own bed on Essex Street in Salem. Captain White was no ordinary man, but a representative of the merchant class that had built Salem’s economy. White’s bed sat ensconced in one of the most beautiful federal-style mansions on the street, a mansion designed by famed architect and wood carver Samuel McIntire. To say his murder was a shock to the city is an understatement, not because White had no enemies but because polite society at the time believed that no person of wealth or status had any business being murdered. Murder was a crime for the lower classes, for sailors and foreigners.

The house where Captain Joseph White was murdered in 1830, now part of the Peabody Essex Museum, and named the Gardner-Pingree House. Picture of a red brick federal style mansion, with dark green window shutters and a white-columned entrance. Trees in front of the house throw shade across the front entrance and windows on a sunny day.
The 1804 Gardner-Pingree House where Captain White was murdered. Now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.

In the tremendous national and international popular interest that followed, it became apparent that White’s murder revealed an underbelly of economic deterioration, underemployment, and interfamilial tension that the elite of Salem would rather not have exposed to the light. The town’s reputation as a world-class seaport was in decline, and while prominent merchant families like White’s still lived off the wealth gained from trade across the seven seas, other Salemites were hurting for employment and economic security. No new economic identity had yet established itself in Salem to replace the tremendous amount of wealth, ingenuity and enterprise that shipping had provided for so many generations.

As Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne later described in 1850’s The Scarlet Letter, the town seemed to have an “outward guise of purity” (80). That outward guise was stripped away overnight in the popular press after the Captain’s murder. As Robert Booth writes in Death of an Empire, the murder unveiled “the Salem no one had wanted to see” (258).

Murder is a sensational event. No one in any time period likes to think of an eighty-two-year-old man being killed in his own bed. But is the response of shock, fear, and morbid interest enough reason to mark the anniversary of a man’s death 193 years later? I personally don’t think so. With so many events and people to draw our limited attention, there’s no cause to dig up and sensationalize an old murder.

My reason for writing about Captain White’s murder as we approach its anniversary this year is to examine how one event that resonates with people can invite them into further conversation about the event’s historical and cultural moment. For example, the witch hysteria of 1692 is often taught to school children in the United States and has been for hundreds of years. That one event draws people’s attention because it was a tragedy and it can be related to at the level of the individuals involved. The witch hysteria can also be used as an entry point to discuss how one’s theological worldview can impact one’s actions, how utopian ideas have historically started and what has happened to them, or it can be a jumping off point to explore what the word “witch” meant in the seventeenth century and how that meaning has changed over time. The 1692 witch hysteria is a great example of how the story of one event can become a door that opens to a larger conversation.

When I’m giving a walking tour, just as when I once stood in the classroom, one of my goals is to give this invitation to a larger conversation to my guests. Yes, I’m there to share stories with them from Salem’s past, but I’m also there to invite them into further conversation, further thought about Salem. Ultimately we all have plenty of stories and images and responsibilities to compete for our attention. My hope is that when people visit Salem they find something in one of the stories that resonates with them and that they take back to their own home. The connection that resonance requires often comes from an understanding of a particular story’s context – something that helps people relate the actions of the past to the present.

As a Salem resident, reader of murder mysteries, and tour guide, that sense of connection between past and present is what has drawn me toward the story of the White murder. The story is sad, and in retrospect several of the people involved could be viewed through the lens of the literary tragic hero. The murder’s story itself can be told from the documents and evidence that remain, but the more in depth conversation about what led up to the murder and the impact it had on the public imagination about Salem is a larger learning opportunity. The way the Captain’s murder was portrayed in popular media, the unique moment in Salem’s economic history and identity it reveals, and the fame of lawyer Daniel Webster – who prosecuted two of the resultant trials – potentially help us understand and connect to that moment in Salem’s history a bit more deeply.

Old Town Hall, Derby Square, Salem, where the Committee of Vigilance was formed after the murder

In an effort to literally and figuratively use this story as a contextual “lens” to help visitors connect with this moment in Salem’s history, I’ve partnered with Witch City Walking Tours and local photographer Chris Padgett to offer two limited-capacity walking tours on April 6 and 7 this year. While I relate the story and its context for our guests, we’ll visit several downtown sites key to what happened, and Chris will give expert advice on capturing images: literally viewing Salem through a new lens.

I have to give Chris the credit for the origin of this tour because he initially approached me with the idea that we could team up and design a walking tour of Salem that paired some of his photography teaching methods with stories from Salem’s past to help people make a deeper connection to what they were walking past. I’m always looking for ways to help Salem visitors connect with our stories on a deeper level, and I hope that inviting them to listen, ask questions, and capture beautiful local sites like The Gardner-Pingree House and East India Marine Hall in images will facilitate that connection.

The story of those involved in the murder, the popularity of the their stories in the press, and the tremendous shift that was taking place as Salem slowly and painfully lost its identity as a major seaport makes for a great discussion, and I’m really excited to get it started. If you want to learn more about that moment in Salem history, I recommend Robert Booth’s Death of an Empire: The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City, and Edward J. Renehan Jr.’s Deliberate Evil: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Webster, and the 1830 Murder of a Salem Slave Trader. If you can join us the first week in April this year for the tour, I look forward to sharing with you the aspects of the story that have captivated so many – including myself – over the years.

Tickets are available online on TripAdvisor for April 6 and 7 at 4:30pm.

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